It began as a minor disagreement at a telephone kiosk Saturday, June 14. But by Sunday, that row triggered one of the fiercest fightings in Wukari, Taraba State, in Nigeria’s restive northeast.
Residents took up arms against one another, setting Churches and Mosques ablaze, and destroying homes and shops in a conflict not directly linked to the extremist sect Boko Haram, but to a deadly animosity between Christians and Muslims.
For no other offence than professing either faith, at least 100 people were killed that day, residents said. Police said official figure stood at 11 deaths.
But both sides agreed that more than a thousand homes were destroyed.
“We lost so many members in my church that we were going for burials every day,” said Dante Angyu, Chairman, Jukun Development Association of Nigeria, Wukari Branch. “At a point, the burials were so many that some of us who are elders had to conduct them because our pastors were seriously overworked. At that time, we had more than four corpses to bury in a day and so we had to assist the pastors.”
It was not only the Christians who had corpses to bury; the Muslims also had a fair share of it.
Umar Sarki, Auditor, Muslim Council of Nigeria, Wukari, and Deputy Chief Imam of Izala Central Mosque, said over 30 Moslems were killed on June 15.
“Others who were killed after the crisis were people who were caught while trying to escape to safety. The killings took place around the Yam Market and those people were attacked three days after the crisis. We reported the matter to the state government,” he said.
Wukari is home to 241,546 people, according to 2006 estimates. Its fertile land, beautiful terrain made more alluring by the Donga River and the Benue River, makes the town a top destination for farmers.
But in recent years, Wukari has made more news for bloody clashes than its agricultural resources.
Communal and ethno-religious conflicts involving Jukun, the majority population there, and Tiv and Fulani, have torn the town apart and have killed hundreds in the last years.
Most clashes are fuelled, if not instigated, by religious affiliations. In cases narrated by survivors of past attacks, relatives have turned against relatives and friends have attacked friends who profess different faiths.
The June clash started on a Saturday after a youth who bought a phone recharge card accused the seller of withholding his change. The two men, being Jukun, differed only by religion.
PREMIUM TIMES could not obtain the name of the card buyer, said to be a Christian. The seller, Hussein Hassan, is a Muslim.
The argument soon drew the attention of other youth in the area, who, also divided along religious lines, took sides with either the buyer or the seller.
After protracted war of words, and exchange of religious slurs, witnesses said some elders intervened and the enraged youth dispersed to their homes.
But by about 6a.m. the next day, Sunday, Mr. Hassan’s telephone kiosk had disappeared, replaced by charred wood and zinc, and burnt phone chargers.
As residents of the area stopped by at the scene, another argument ensued with some accusing the Christian youth for the attack, and others saying the incident was staged by Muslims.
What seemed like a rapprochement came when some well-meaning indigenes of the area accepted to compensate Mr. Hassan for his losses, while he too agreed to forgo his losses.
With the settlement, the crowd dispersed, residents of Wukari and security officials told a PREMIUM TIMES reporter who spent weeks in the town investigating recurring crises in the area.
But barely an hour later, gunfire rang out from the fringes of the town and chants of war songs rent the air as heavily armed men in their hundreds marched on Wukari, killing residents and burning their worship places, homes and shops, those interviewed said.
As the gunmen surged towards the centre of the town, Christian and Muslim militia sprang to defend their domains, residents said.
Unlike other clashes between Jukun and Tiv, or Tiv against Fulani, both sides in the June clashes were mostly Jukun, separated only by religion.
Witnesses, government officials and the police paint a disheartening picture of the fighting that day, all saying it was the worst the town has witnessed in recent memory.
The fighting started when many worshippers were already in churches. Some who attempted to run home were either shot directly or hit by stray bullets.
As some of the attackers targeted Christian domains, armed Christian youth were also wreaking havoc in areas inhabited largely by Muslims.
Both sides fought on the streets and several neighbourhoods.
When police reinforcement, backed up by soldiers and armed operatives of the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps, broke through the fighting line and sent the combatants scampering, dozens of bodies littered the streets and over 2,000 houses were burnt, witnesses said.
Joseph Kwali, the Taraba State Police Public Relations Officer, said only 11 people were killed while 1,398 houses were destroyed.
The Chief Press Secretary to the former Taraba State Acting Governor, Kefas Sule, said the fighting was the deadliest in the history of Wukari.
“I saw where buildings were brought down and the foundations dug out in Wukari,” he said. “I agree that the destruction was of a massive scale.”
Cruelty in God’s name
Wukari has a long history of ethno-religious tension which occasionally results in clashes.
In 2010, a mosque built by a police officer inside the Ibi Road Police station was demolished by angry youth who protested against its location. In reprisal, many more mosques and churches were burnt and scores killed.
According to residents, the government has unwittingly fuelled the crises and tension by failing to bring to justice those responsible for past attacks.
Often, that tension has seen the barest of disagreements between locals of opposite faiths result in deadly clashes.
After the row at the telephone booth June 14, Shittu Balla, a brother to the recharge card seller, Mr. Hassan, said his family never anticipated any more trouble.
At the site of the burnt phone booth, Mr. Balla told PREMIUM TIMES his family was making attempts to uncover the arsonist when fighting started and they fled leaving behind all they had.
When they returned weeks later, the family met an empty land where their home once stood.
The Chairman of the Muslim Youth Council, Wukari, Sani Ismaila, recalled that he was at home when Mr. Hassan came to report about his burnt phone booth.
To stave off a possible confrontation, Mr. Ismaila suggested the matter be reported to the police. As they left for the divisional police station, the fighting was already afoot.
In interviews, some residents suggested the disagreement between Mr. Hassan and his customer may have been a smokescreen for a planned onslaught on the town.
The Deputy Chief Imam of Izala Central Mosque, Wukari, Mr. Sarki, said the burning must have been done by a Christian. He said those who instigated the fight had a hidden agenda. “If not, why did they go about burning churches, mosques and houses,” Mr. Sarki asked.
Some Christian leaders in the area agreed the phone booth fire may have been a cover-up to trigger a crisis. But they argued that no provocation justifies the scale of destruction Wukari witnessed that day.
Agabison Williams, the resident pastor of Christian Reformed Church of Nigeria, CRCN, and Chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria, CAN, Wukari chapter, recalled how several members of his Church were killed that day.
Mr. Williams said worship service had barely begun when worshippers heard heavy gunshots and war cry from a distance.
“When the shooting came too close, we stopped the service and opened the backdoor for people who were trapped in the church to run out,” he narrated.
“In the course of trying to flee to safety, some were shot and others were brought down by stray bullets. When the killing became too much, the youths from the town also mobilised to defend their areas from the invaders,” he said.
While police said 11 people were killed, the clergyman said the dead surpassed 100.
More than one month after the fighting, PREMIUM TIMES found 16 obituary posters on the notice board of the CRCN, Gu Puje branch.
Overall, Mr. Williams said over 30 members of his church were killed.
Apart from the destruction of Wukari town, fighters also sacked several villages, including Akwana, Fyayi, Ikwe, Ndo-Yaku, Kata-Iko, Nayi Nawa, Tudun Wada and Nwokyon. In Ndo-Yaku alone, PREMIUM TIMES learnt 29 people were killed.
Persistent crises have helped shut down Wukari. After the June fighting, schools were closed for months, while banks refused to open for business.
The town long described as the Land of Opportunity, no longer has opportunity, the Chairman of Jukun Development Association of Nigeria, Wukari branch, Mr. Angyu, said sarcastically.
“It was not a joke; it was the worst crisis we have ever had,” Mr. Angyu said. “If you go round the town you will see the level of destruction. We are not still safe months after the crisis because there are rumours that we may come under attack at any time.”
He said indigenes of the area, Christians and Muslims alike, have continued to flee to neighbouring states to seek refuge.
On why some residents still hang on even with renewed threat of attacks, Mr. Angyu replied, “We are the owners of Wukari and we don’t have any other place to run to. We will live and die here come what may.”
Shocking tales from survivors
There is hardly a family in Wukari not directly affected by the fighting of June 15.
Awulo Tanko, who said he was born and raised in the town by Jukun parents, said he grew up in the Christian dominated part of the town until he converted to Islam.
Long after he became a Muslim, he said his brothers who remained Christians still loved and accepted him.
Mr. Tanko however recounted how his Christian relations invaded his home and shot his father before setting the house ablaze, after he fled with his wife and children.
“When the fighting started,” he said, “I took my wife and children to a neighbouring town. When I came back, I saw many dead bodies on the street. I got home to find my father dead in the house. He was shot and burnt with everything we had.”
Another resident, Haruna Ismaila, said two of his brothers were killed by their Christian neighbours, who also burned his house and household items.
A staff of the Federal Road Safety Commission, FRSC, Mr. Ismaila said, “We have been living together peacefully until in recent time. During the June 15 crisis, two of my brothers were killed and my house burnt down. It was terrible. I can’t explain how I escape. It was just the hand of God.”
A Clerk with the Chief Magistrate Court, Wukari, Suleiman Usman, said although he is a Muslim, he has lived peacefully for years with some of his biological brothers who are Christians.
“I think the politicians are the ones polluting our minds against each other. Our relationship with our Christian brothers has changed badly. I lost my house during the crisis and that is why I relocated my family to Jalingo.”
Thirty two-year-old Justina Timothy said her husband was shot by Muslim fighters who attempted to overrun the CRCN, Gu Puje, branch. Mrs. Timothy’s husband served in the church’s security team.
“My husband was at home that Sunday morning while I was making breakfast. Suddenly, we started hearing gunshots. My children argued it was firecrackers but my neighbour insisted it was gunshots.
“I immediately ran inside and told my husband who was still sleeping. Just then, his colleagues called him on the phone and asked him to come to the church. He quickly took his bath and rushed out to the church. That was the last time I saw him alive,” she said.
PREMIUMT TIMES saw scores of residents leaving the town with few belongings they could salvage from the ruins of religious battle.
The Chairman of the Taraba State Peace Initiative, Charles Yohana, said the Wukari crisis was between Christians and Muslims, and should not be seen as an inter-ethnic war.
“The crisis in Wukari is between two brothers. It is not between the Jukun and Hausa/Fulani but between Jukun Christians and Moslems,” he said.